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Roman Polanski – When Angels Fall (1959)

I have recently discovered one of Roman Polanski’s earliest works – it is a 1959 short, Gdy Spadają Anioły (When Angels Fall). You may already notice his interest in the neurotic, the funny, the dramatic, the humble. 20 minutes encapsulate the last day in the life of an elderly woman who works as an attendant in the male toilet. The male characters that come and go intercept with her recollections of life before and during the war.

The film was directed and written by Polanski; the script was based on a short story by Leszek Szymański, “The Toilet Granny“. The old woman was played by Polanski himself – an early experiment for the actor-director that would culminate in Le Locataire (The Tenant). While the Polish forum discussion has described the film as “simply poetry”, the IMDb.com reviewer goes further, citing Paul Tillich’s “you find God only after you have lost all“.

For me, it was a discovery of Polanski’s shorts. I have seen all his features (up to The Ghost, I must admit), including a weird erotic comedy Che? with Marcello Mastroianni. When Angels Fall was also Polanski’s graduate work, which he had to make “complex” to show his directorial prowess. Although it is described by some viewers as “pretentious”, I do find it lingering, dramatic, and thus successful.

As for the meaning… The old woman is often described as someone who keeps recalling her lost hopes and dreams. Strictly speaking, as we can see from flashbacks, there were hardly many hopes and dreams. There was love – first for a man, then for her son, both of whom perished at war. Rather than a story of a loss, this is a story of endurance, of survival that likely hinges on the fear of suicide supported by the thought that everything in this world is God-given, and when the day comes, each will have their worth. Angel falls in the guise of the woman’s son. Whatever life she may have endured on Earth is fully compensated for by a union with her son in heaven.

The ending is unclear, at least to me. It may be that the entire film is a kind of “last day” in the life of the toilet granny. Or it may be that each day she survives on her memories, and by the evening she is visited by her angel (the son) who grants her relief from the day’s work.

Author: Julia Shuvalova

Julia Shuvalova is the author of Los Cuadernos de Julia blog. She is an author of several books, a translator, and a Foreign Languages tutor. She lives and works in Moscow, Russia.

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